The St. Louis Blues and Minnesota Wild are two teams that are built on strong defense and limiting how many shots the opponent gets on net.
The Blues were fifth in goals-against per game (2.40) and second in shots against per game (27.2); Minnesota was sixth (2.42) and fourth (27.6) in those categories.
It’s clear that this first round playoff series will feature great defense, but the X-Factors on both sides are found on offense, challenged with the task of breaking through these stingy defenses.
Blues X-Factor: Paul Stastny
After early playoff exits the past three seasons, the Blues went out in the offseason and focused on getting stronger up the middle. They did just that by landing top free agent target Paul Stastny.
Although he hasn’t put up his usual offensive numbers, the 29-year-old center has proven to be a versatile player for the Blues, and a valuable one that they’ll need to go far in the playoffs.
Stastny scored 16 goals and 30 assists in 74 games this season. Seven of his 16 goals were on the power play. Perhaps the biggest contribution Stastny has made is in the faceoff circle. He finished in the top-5 in the NHL in faceoff percentage this season at 57.9%. Winning faceoffs, especially in the offensive zone will be critical to scoring goals in the playoffs. The Blues have taken advantage and have been able to create several scoring plays from those faceoff wins in the offensive zone.
Stastny has also become a veteran leader to younger guys on the team. He has helped mentor young forward and linemate Dmitrij Jaskin, who scored 13 goals this season and continues to grow with confidence.
Heading into the playoffs Stastny finds himself getting hot, centering a line with Jaden Schwartz and TJ Oshie. The line was put together out of necessity, when forwards Alex Steen and Vladimir Tarasenko were hurt. But the group has clicked and produced some critical goals, helping the Blues finish the regular season 5-1.
Stastny has also shown he can score in the playoffs.
He has 15 points in his last 13 postseason games. One year ago against Minnesota, he led the NHL in scoring after the first round, with 5 goals and 5 assists in 7 games. Unfortunately, Colorado lost in 7 games despite the 10 points from Stastny. This year he gets another crack at the Wild, hoping to have similar scoring results and a different series outcome.
Wild X-Factor: Nino Niederreiter
Minnesota’s offense is front loaded, led by the top line of Parise-Granlund-Pominville. If the Wild want to keep up with the Blues high-powered offense, Nino Niederreiter will have to continue his hot play this season.
The 22-year-old has had his best season in the NHL, scoring a career-high 24 goals along with 13 assists for 37 points. But he went cold to finish the season, with only two points in the final 11 games. His offense will be a critical addition to the production that Minnesota’s top line will have.
The line of Niederreiter-Koivu-Stewart will be key to taking some pressure off the top line to score. The trio has also had success since the addition of Chris Stewart from Buffalo at the trade deadline. Stewart has three goals and eight assists since the trade.
The Wild are also hoping Niederreiter does what he did in the playoffs last year. Although he only scored three goals and three assists in 13 games, two of those goals were game winners, including the series clincher in overtime in game 7 against Colorado.
The young forward has built from that success and turned it into a career season in 2015. Minnesota hopes that offense can continue into the playoffs.
Overall, while both the Blues and the Wild are great defensively, one of their offensive weapons will have to break through to win the series. Stastny and Niederreiter have had success in the playoffs and they will be counted upon to continue their scoring at the most important time of the season.